“Doug Mowat truly did lead a life of service, giving selflessly of himself for the betterment of all his fellow citizens. In doing so, he left an indelible mark on those who knew him, and knew of his work.”
Doug Mowat was born in 1929 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The son of a tow boat chief engineer, he soon took to the waters himself and mastered the double winches on local steamships in the summers of ’46 and ‘47.
“He was a ‘harem-scare-em’ kind of guy,” recalls best friend John Allan, who shared the deck with him on the Lady Pam steamship. “We went to sea together for two summers. He was very anxious to go to sea and become a professional seaman, which ran in his family.”
But his life’s course changed heading.
At the age of 17, he was injured while at a rugby party and became a quadriplegic. Though limited physically by the quadriplegia and wheelchair he would now use to propel his body, his vision and imagination held to no such boundaries.
After his injury, Mowat had an extensive and painful recovery and rehabilitation at Vancouver General Hospital. His nerves were still firing and his legs would occasionally spasm, leading to burns when he’d kick off the light bulbs used to bake the plaster casts he was put in.
But this didn’t get Doug down. Allan recalls that Mowat never once complained about his fate. He was determined to make it. He was so popular, Allan says, with streams of people constantly visiting, the hospital needed to create a separate waiting room just for his friends. Doug Mowat had that kind of charm and charisma, even as a teen, his friend remembers.
“As far as Doug was concerned, ‘anything you can do, I can do,’” recalls John Allan.
The Boy Scouts instilled the values of fellowship and leadership in young Mowat and crystallized his commitment to service to his fellows. He was a Boy Scout before his injury, and a Boy Scout Rover ( the Scout organization for young men age 18 -22 ) after.
Fortunately, Scouting also taught Mowat how to work well with others and manage people- skills he would use throughout his career of public service.
In the mid ’50’s Mowat needed a job, and was hired by the Dueck family to work as the late-hours salesman in their tire shop at Broadway and Fir. “His attraction to people was such that it soon became a common meeting place,” recalls Allan.
Soon Mowat became involved in the beginnings of the sport of wheelchair basketball at the gymnasium of the Western Rehabilitation Centre. With him as manager, and Allan as referee, they would play pick-up games with service groups and with the local kids at Vancouver schools. Enter sponsorship from the Dueck’s, and later on the world would see the “Dueck Powerglides” and the B.C. Wheelchair Basketball League. He would follow the sport through his life and go on to manage teams that competed in Israel and Germany.
“While Doug couldn’t play himself, he was an interesting manager,” recounts Allan. “He understood the game, and was a very positive person. He would be able to give direction that made good sense and kept things going. He had no patience with people who weren’t able to follow through with what they should do.”
Mowat took an active social position in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. He had the strong emotional support from his mother and father – and boosts from his friends in dealing with his quadriplegia – and he was to give back using all of his skills and gifts. He joined the Vancouver Gyro club (a non-profit fundraising organization for charities) with Allan, eventually becoming president. He helped found the B.C. Paraplegic Association (BCPA) in 1957 – expanding the association to assist other wheelchair people both physically and psychologically. He held the post of executive director of the BCPA from 1962 until his passing. In 1961 he married his wife and dedicated partner, Ann – an incredible source of support for him.
Mowat was largely responsible for bringing the first wave of wheelchair accessibility to the City of Vancouver. Curb cuts in sidewalks, better bus and taxi access, and wheelchair accessible public washroom doors can all be traced to his legacy of public service. For his work on behalf of people with disabilities, he received the Order of Canada in 1982, recognizing his life of service and achievement. But he was not done yet.
Mowat became more politically involved, and in the early ’80’s, ran and was elected to the Vancouver Park Board. He was persuaded by colleagues to consider running for provincial politics and ran as MLA for Vancouver Little Mountain in 1983.
“I remember him very clearly talking to me: ‘should I do this?’ Allan recalls. “Doug and I were very close friends. I told him, ‘Doug it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of difficulty because for one thing, [people may think] how could a quadriplegic possibly serve his community with his paralytic condition? And also [some] people think if you broke your back, you broke your head!” I said, ‘it’s very hard for you now to turn down the chance to achieve this so that people will realize that a quadriplegic can serve his community very well.’”
Mowat was elected to the B.C. Legislature in 1983, holding his position until 1991. In 1984, he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health and to the Minister of Social Services and Housing. He served all of his constituents well, according to colleagues from both sides of the legislature, and along the way, inspired, shaped, and mentored young people who would go on to choose a life of public service as elected officials.
“It didn’t matter what party Doug was with, in a matter of ways,” recalls his protégé since the ’70’s from the BCPA, Al DeGenova. “He got along so well with the [other politicians], and they respected him on the opposition better than anybody. They could never really pounce on Doug because they knew he was there for all the right reasons.”
DeGenova, Vancouver’s current Park Commissioner (for the fifth term running) recalls, “Before he passed away, Doug met me and encouraged me to run for the Vancouver Park Board. He encouraged me to make the city more accessible.
“Doug was a huge influence in revitalizing Vancouver’s Chinatown in the early ’80’s. He helped raise funds for the lighting program with B.C. Hydro, back in the days when Chinatown was really struggling. He left a number of legacy things through the City and Park Board for youth and seniors- it didn’t mean everybody had to be a quadriplegic or paraplegic, he just helped to make things accessible in a lot of ways.
“He taught me to be who I was [as an elected public servant]; to be genuine. It was your credibility; your integrity and genuineness. There were never ‘political’ strategies or ways with Doug. He was the best politician because of his charismatic way; his genuineness.
He was shrewd, no doubt, in getting things done, but he did things for all the right reasons. That was his key to a successful life as a public servant, and for running the [BCPA] and everything else that he sat on.”
Doug Mowat served his community well, and passed away in Vancouver on August 11, 1992.